Archive for the ‘religion’ Category


September 18, 2016

When I was younger, I often made the mistake of trying to understand theological concepts in 1-2 sentences. I wanted to distill them down to their essence. I wanted things to be clear and well defined. It was a sincere attempt to wrap my brain around complicated ideas. But equally it is important to not stay with the distilled theology.   “When I was a child…”

At some point we need to begin to embrace complexity.

I remember being frustrated that the church didn’t have one word for the Lord’s Supper.


Lord’s Super


Which is it? Which word is right. Why can’t we just pick one?  It took a while before I understood that we can’t pick one because one word is simply insufficient.

With baptism while we have one word, we have many forms (Of course, some of us are more particular than others. Presbyterians,however, are pretty flexible about this.

adults and babies

immersion and sprinkling

indoors and outside

why? because one expression of baptism is insufficient to embody its meaning. Everything that water can do, happens in baptism/  washing, quenching, drowning. And even that doesn’t exhaust the meaning of baptism.

For that matter, what about “sacrament”?  What is a sacrament?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the sacraments as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is ‘dispensed’ to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”[1]

The catechism included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof”.

Lutherans hold that sacraments are sacred acts of divine institution.[32] Whenever they are properly administered by the use of the physical component commanded by God[33] along with the divine words of institution,[34] God is, in a way specific to each sacrament, present with the Word and physical component.[35] He earnestly offers to all who receive the sacrament[36]forgiveness of sins[37] and eternal salvation.[38] He also works in the recipients to get them to accept these blessings and to increase the assurance of their possession.[39]

John Calvin defined a sacrament as an earthly sign associated with a promise from God. He accepted only two sacraments as valid under the new covenant: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

(from our friend Wikipedia)

I trust that has cleared up any confusion about the sacraments.  Honestly, there are things that defy a simple explanation, like the sacraments.

Of course the theological construct that probably has the greatest variety of descriptions is God.

Please don’t be offended by the phrase “theological construct”. That’s just a fancy way of saying  because all our ideas about God are less than the reality of God, we have to make or construct language/words to talk about God. Sometimes I use those fancy phrases to reassure myself that I got my money’s worth out of my seminary education.

We are not going to list all the metaphors the Bible uses to describe God, but we can list a few;

Father, Rock, Potter, Shepherd, Bridegroom, King, Shield, Shelter.

The difficulty of speaking truthfully and well about God pushes us into talking about the Trinity and that is a concept that practically defies definition.

Why is all this theological stuff so difficult to talk about? Why is it so difficult to describe and define?

You shouldn’t be surprised if I suggest that there is more than one possible response.

But consider this, what might happen if we could simply and precisely define God, or the Eucharist, Baptism and the Trinity?

Once we define, describe and categorize we believe we have mastered the topic. We know it. We own it. We can use it. Think of how we feel when we master and use math facts or a spelling list. Remember how proud you were?  That’s dangerous for us when we talk about God. Once we “know”, once we have mastered a topic it becomes something we use.  We use it and we stop exploring it.

Think about how complex words are.  Every word has a history. And its history is embedded in other languages and cultures and even sometimes other alphabets.

I can spell continent and use it in a sentence and find one on a map. Our word “continent” comes to us from Latin, through Middle French and Middle English from the present participle of the word continere, “to hold in”. And if I am not content with those utilitarian uses I can also think about continental drift and plate tectonics, and volcanoes, and explorers and the varieties of climate and landscapes and ecosystems.  There is a whole lot of thinking that can be done about “continents”beyond a one sentence definition. I case you are curious, here is a link to Wikipedia 

How much more is there to think about and discover about baptism, communion, Trinity, salvation, grace… The complexity of these words is, I think, to ward us away from mastery and to beckon us into mystery, into complexity, into wonder. This is not to say we cannot know anything about these rich, complex words and ideas. We can. We know in our heads through learning. But we also know in our hearts through experience.

Definitions as an entry into mystery? Who knew?




What About Sin?

March 14, 2014

“We don’t take sin seriously enough.”

“We have lost the concept of sin.”

Sooner or later someone always says something along those lines when talking about grace, don’t they? I mean, sometimes it’s me. In a certain sense we can’t talk about grace without talking about sin. If we don’t make the connection, we may not  really understand grace well. On the other hand we don’t need to belabor the point, all of us experience sin and feel its presence.

Now, of course, there is sin and there is sin. Sin can be understood as breaking the rules and sin  can be understood as disconnection and separation from God. Each of these conceptions of sin has its place but I think part of being human is the knowledge that “something” is wrong. As humans we know,we sense, we feel that life is not as it should be. We know this, even if we can’t articulate it, we know that something is missing, or broken, or lost. We are disconnected and separated from God. We can’t ever really loose sin or fail to take it seriously. Sin is deeply part of being human.

We can lose the language to talk about sin. What do we call our sense of disconnection from something or someone important and necessary? The Christian tradition uses the word “sin”. The word, sin, comes with all sorts of inferences and connotations.For some of us the word carries so many problems that it is simply not helpful. Sin has too often been used as a club or goad to drive people to unhealthy and unhelpful places. Sometimes the language we use causes more problems than it solves.

Even if we don’t have the language to talk about it, our experience remains. It is impossible for us not to take our sense of disconnection and separation  seriously. We can ignore it for a while, and sometimes quite a while. Some of us are extremely good at that. Eventually we all are confronted with the fundamental discomfort and isolation of being human. I don’t think it is possible for us to loose the concept of sin or to fail to take sin seriously. It is possible for us to not know how to talk about it, how to express our isolation and discomfort and fear.  Everyone knows sin , participates in it, experiences it, whether we have the language to express it or not.

What many of us don’t have is the knowledge of grace. What many of us don’t know is the love of God. What many of us don’t understand is that we have value and worth simply because we are beloved children of God. We can have glimpses of it, if our eyes are open. There are those times when we feel at peace, settled,and loved. We have those experiences when life is right and good. We all have those experiences of grace. We all have a sense that there is more. More than we can imagine. More that loves us. More that cares about us.  What not all of us have is the language to talk about it. And we don’t just lack the language, many of us lack the ability to recognize who this “more” is.

Sin we recognize. We don’t need to spend a lot of time telling people about that. They know, we all know sin. It’s all around us- in our homes, in our jobs, in our schools, every time we check the news. It is there when we leave the house in morning, its there at work, its present in our relationships, it haunts us just before we fall asleep. It is inescapable. No matter what we call it, or if we have no words for it, we all know sin.

What we have trouble with is grace. Grace as unconditional love. Grace as the knowledge that we, you and I, actually matter to something or someone larger than ourselves. Grace and the knowledge of grace is in short supply in our world. That God loves us and that we matter to God are not ideas and experiences that all of us understand. Many of us know we are sinners- whatever language we use. But not so many of us truly believe that we are more than sinners. There is more for us and to life, and that” more” is truly better. The grace of God is abundant. The love of God is abundant. God’s grace and love surrounds us, but many of us have trouble believing it. That’s why I talk about grace.  What do you think?

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